May 02, 2009

A letter from Karl Marx and the education of a communist

In November 1837 Marx had spent a year at the provincial university of Bonn. During this time he wrote to his father- we have some of those letters- but he wrote a particularly long and full account of his year in November. What Marx tried to get across to his father in this letter was his slow conversion to the philosophy of Hegel- to having to 'make my idol a philosophy I hated' and abandoning idealism, Kant and Fichte. The letter is an interesting production- obviously for what it says about Hegelianism and other philosophical schools but also for what it reveals about the young Marx- his personality and the way that he understood his own intellectual evolution- this is afterall an intellectual account, an audit of a year's work.

The first thing that I think you get from the letter is the sense of Marx's volume of reading. It stretches across both classical authors (he names Tacitus and Ovid) and modern (notably Hegel, but also Savigny, Feuerbach, Cramer, Lauterbach and others). It encompassed many subjects: Marx essayed to read in poetry, literature, he 'made some acquaintance with natural science and history' (particularly delighting in Riemarus's 'On the Instincts of Animals), inquired into law both Canon, German (through Frankish capitularies) and modern and of course joined a reading group prompted by his philosophical investigations. WE also get a sense of the young Karl's output- he attempted to write a philosophical treatise, books of romantic lyric poetry to his future wife Jenny, and 'began to learn English and Italian on my own ie out of grammars'. Marx is of course writing to his father- but even so the names of the titles and the way that the letter addresses their contribution to his intellectual trajectory are redolent of a student encountering a vast corpus of European literature across a range of subjects: Marx was obviously well read.

What is interestingly absent is economics: we hear plenty of philosophy but little of the craft that was to reveal to Marx (so he thought) the underlying material basis of society. That is partly because Marx's own interest in what seems to have been untutored reading did not focus on economics or society itself but on the relationship between change and reality. He battles for example with the definition of law- looking to compose a study of law by splitting it into two parts, the first a theoretical consideration of the metaphysics of law (its underlying principles) and secondly attempting to view the definitions of law as passed through Roman in particular and other laws. As Marx himself expressed, such a project hid problems, he wrote 'as though the development of the ideas of positive law... could ever be anything different from the formation of the concept of law.' In a sense here we have Marx struggling towards a Hegelian or later Marxist undestanding of the role of history in the development of a human conceptual apparatus: the history of the adaptation of a term to circumstance is actually the history of the process of refinement that that term goes through. History in that sense is related to the formation of concepts and much more related to that process than formal definition or abstract logical reasoning is.

I am not professionally competent enough to understand Hegelianism- but this letter does seem interesting to me because it describes an education. Marx's reading in this period of his life was his own and it seems directed to an end- an end we should be aware of when we consider what communism as it later evolved in his hands and the hands of others became. What he seems to be interested in in this letter is the relationship of change to the structure of ideas of forms: Marx describes a juvenile philosophical pamphlet as containing 'a philosophical and dialectical development of the divinity as it manifests itself as idea-in-itself, religion, nature and history. My last sentence was the beggining of Hegel's system'. For Marx this revelation changed utterly his own understanding of the world- and he writes his letter in such a way as to reveal his changing thought about how concepts are generated- describing a history or process of thought rather than a logical sequence of thoughts.

Reading this letter suggests therefore that when we come to try and understand Marx, it is vital not to see him only as an economist but also as some kind of philosopher of history and experience. His movement towards the communism that was to make him famous started with the adaptation of Hegelian ideas and the reasons that he adopted those- as set out in this letter- were to do with the relationship between experience and history. This letter whcih I have barely understood is an important document which reflects the kind of education that Marx had and suggests interesting issues about the kind of theory he was to develop. Eventually his arguments were to be economical but the idea that ideas were generated by historical evolutions rather than ab nihilo was never to leave him.